My Basketball Experience (as a Fan in 2020)
I got into basketball in perhaps its strangest year yet
The sport of basketball has always fascinated me; it’s a fast-paced, high energy game that demands incredible athleticism and endurance. The skill required to be among the best at the sport is staggering, and as such, I always have respected basketball players for their physical and mental prowess and the amount of effort they pour into honing their craft. However, I cannot say that I was a major basketball fan for most of my life, despite growing up in the United States; instead, tennis was my preferred sport, and once I moved to India, it became cricket. With the NBA airing at odd timings in India due to the stark time difference, I never got invested in basketball. Still, I did shoot hoops in school now and then, and if I happened to stumble upon highlights randomly while flipping through channels on TV, I would watch them for 5 minutes or so before moving on.
Perhaps it was this pseudo-familiarity that I had with the game, combined with the boredom of being stuck at home due to the pandemic, that drove me to check out 'The Last Dance’ on Netflix. When I first started it, I could have never predicted how invested I would become in the fascinating story of the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan's career. What captivated me most about the documentary was the mental fortitude and strength that Jordan had throughout his career and how it helped transform a team that wasn’t doing so well into one of the most formidable teams the NBA has ever seen. To win three championships in a row is no easy feat, but to come out of retirement and guide a brand new team to a championship the very next year is a legendary feat.
After I finished the show, I began to watch highlights of Michael Jordan’s games, which led me to watch videos of other great players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, etc. I moved on to the more modern basketball era, and while it was a sharp contrast to the earlier rougher periods, it was still immensely entertaining. The dynamism of Russel Westbrook and Kevin Durant, the brutality of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the raw skill and talent of shooters like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson – I was watching more basketball than I ever was before, and I was enjoying every minute of it. Naturally, this led me to find out what the status was with the ongoing NBA season, and to my disappointment, I found that it had been suspended due to the pandemic. This was unfortunate, but I was hopeful that it would soon resume in some capacity so that I could watch more of this fascinating new game.
Soon enough, the NBA announced plans to have a bio-bubble in Walt Disney World, with the teams that qualified for the playoffs travelling there for the remainder of the season. The games were to be played without any crowds, and initially, I thought nothing of this. However, when the games started, I felt like I was watching a completely different sport compared to all those highlights from YouTube. Gone were the voracious crowds and the screams of passion – even the bench players seemed more subdued from time to time. The backdrop of the controversy surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement also added to the melancholy, and I suddenly wondered how it must feel for someone who had grown up watching the sport to see something like this. The contrast was especially evident when, in the fourth quarter of a close game, the intense buzz of the crowd was replaced by a curtain of quiet that was draped around the court, broken only by the sounds of the dribbling ball and the commentator’s voice on the air.
Given that online classes were in full swing during the bubble season, I had to keep only one eye on most of the games, with the other on whatever college work I had to do that day. However, since the games aired early in the morning, this proved advantageous as I could finish my work early on and take it easy for the rest of the day. It did get taxing at times to wake up early, but I was eager to see as much as I could. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the remainder of the season, and when the Los Angeles Lakers lifted the trophy at the end of a grueling 6 game series, the only thought on my mind was when basketball would be back.
I didn’t have to wait long, as the NBA announced plans to restart the regular season in December, a first for the league. Unfortunately, there still wouldn’t be any crowds, so the players would have to display their skills in empty stadiums. When I tuned in for one of the pre-season games, I remember how strange it was to see the once packed stadium so empty and devoid of energy. It was a massive contrast from the video highlights I had seen, and as I watched more highlights in my spare time, the difference became more pronounced. Of course, I have gotten used to it now after consistently watching games for a couple of weeks. Still, even so, I can’t imagine how taxing it must be for the players themselves to keep up their energy and be motivated when the setting is so different and so many travel restrictions bog them down.
It is undoubtedly a strange time for the NBA, and as someone who has just started to take an active interest in basketball, I am curious as to what the future of the sport will be like moving forward. It is no secret that the NBA experienced some of its lowest viewing numbers last year, and that’s not set to change anytime soon from the looks of it. One can hope that the regular season's resumption will change this for the better, but as of now it’s too early to tell if this is happening or not. Another point of interest is how the NBA will handle the streaming of their games. It is safe to say that empty stadiums (or partially filled ones, at the very least) will be the norm for the majority of 2021, and so, staying at home and watching games is going to be the most popular way to watch basketball. More than ever, people will be more likely to pay for Internet-based services rather than live cable TV, so I can’t help but wonder if the NBA will change up its streaming service to be more accessible to fans.
2020 was not a typical year for anyone – it was filled with challenges and struggles for the entire world. Despite all the hardship and strife, I have to commend the league for quickly adapting to the unique circumstances 2020 presented them and making the best of them by arranging the bubble and even moving up the start of 2021’s regular season. I can only hope that in 2021, some semblance of normalcy returns to the sport of basketball; I know I’ll be there to watch it for a long time.